The 1947 Club: The Fall of the Magicians by Weldon Kees

1947club

I’ve decided to join the 1947 club!

keesfallofmagicians

There’s a 1947 club in the blogosphere and this week people are reading books published in 1947.   The Fall of the Magicians by poet Weldon Kees was published in 1947.  Kees was one of the stranger blokes of the 20th century poetry world and also among the best.  Born in 1914 in  small Beatrice, Nebraska–a largely agricultural town just a tad north of the Kansas/Nebraska border—named after the teenaged daughter of a judge[by the way, it’s a bit like those cities in the USA with street names like Cindy Lou Drive or Patty Jane Boulevard or Annie Avenue] where Arby’s and Dairy Queen are in the top ten restaurants, according to Trip Advisor.  Was that even a sentence?  In 1885 40 acres of Beatrice were dedicated to the institution of “Feeble Minded Youth”.   With well over 1000 residents this institution (renamed the “Beatrice State Home” in 1945) may well have loomed over the everyday life of young Weldon Kees.

It took a while for Kees to get out of Nebraska, although he did have some schooling at the University of Missouri.  He arrived in New York City in 1941, ready to write and listen to jazz.   In 1950 Kees drove across country with his wife, Ann, to San Francisco where he worked with jazz musicians on ballads and torch songs and began taking professional photographs.  Ann had a nervous breakdown because she watched too much of the Army-McCarthy hearings on television.  They made her psychotic, which was an eminently reasonable reaction.   Kees started telling his friends that he wanted to commit suicide or that he wanted to disappear to Mexico and reinvent himself.    His car was found, abandoned, near the Golden Gate Bridge.  For decades people watched and waited for the real Weldon Kees to emerge from Mexico or some other hiding place.  That did not happen.  Perhaps he did end his life in July, 1955, at the age of 41.

About half of Kees’s poetry appeared in the 1947 volume, The Fall of the Magicians.  Kees explored America and its people through these works which include much bitterness and sardonicism.  The first poem, “Eight Variations” begins with:tapirs

Prurient tapirs gamboled on our lawns,

But that was quite some time ago.

Now one is accosted by asthmatic bulldogs,

Sluggish in the hedges, ruminant.

 bulldogsad

Readers are probably saying:  this is what’s wrong with poetry.  Tapirs are not prurient nor are the likely to have gamboled in our yards.  But you could also see that previously things were very sexy and full of meat and energy. Today’s bulldogs are slow because of their asthma.  They ruminate rather than play.  “Eight Variations” has got a Wallace Stevens quality beginning with the “prurient tapirs” and including haunted houses, Rousseau, couples called the Millotsons and the Farnsworths wintering on the coast of France, Victorian beadwork, grapes, and chimneys.  There’s a wasteland touch too:  the “brown weeds” in “parched and caking land”.  Beauty is a “topic for ill-mannered minds,” “gossip,” and “remote despair”.  As in Eliot’s The Waste Land when the typist home from tea has a quick and unsatisfying round of sex with the “young man carbuncular” the woman at the end of “Eight Variations” stands with her back turned to her lover, “quite alone”.   “Eight Variations” may be derivative, but it remains its own piece of art and social criticism.

My beloved poet, Donald Justice, a contemporary of Kees wrote that no one poem by Kees “stands out” and “there are no epics” but I would say that some of the poems do stand out from the really very high bar that Kees had already reached in this 1947 volume.

So why read Kees if he’s derivative?  He is original.  He found his own rather apocalyptic meaning is ways that are different that Eliot, who reached what he considered spiritual salvation and Wallace Stevens, who is always measured and a bit oracular but impersonally so, in most poems.

One of the best known works in this volume is “For My Daughter,” a sonnet:

For My Daughter

Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read

Beneath the innocence of morning flesh

Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.

Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh

Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;

The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,

Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen

That may be hers appear: foul, lingering

Death in certain war, the slim legs green.

Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting

Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel

Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.

These speculations sour in the sun.

I have no daughter. I desire none.

This must have been written this past weekend in response to Donald Trump’s view of women, correct?  No, it was written in 1940 but first published in a volume in 1947.  This sonnet to a daughter is decidedly unconventional and defies other famous poems written by fathers to daughters, such as those by Ben Jonson, Longfellow, Yeats and others.  The speaker is worried that his innocent  daughter is doomed to dreadful experiences:  death and before that perhaps meanness and marriage to a “syphilitic or a fool.”  The final couplet surprises the read:  The speaker admits that he has no daughter; he does not want a daughter, hence his speculations are sour.  Yet Kees, to my mind, is expressing his anxiety about the children of a world at war, the children of a world where innocence is doomed.  It seems to be an excellent poem to read in conjunction with “The Second Coming” by Yeats.

This volume also contains “Five Villanelles” which proceed along an increasingly menacing trajectory.  The first examines a crack in the house:

The crack is moving down the wall

crackinthwall

The crack is moving down the wall.

Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.

We must remain until the roof falls in.

It’s mildly cheering to recall

That every building has its little flaws.

The crack is moving down the wall.

Here in the kitchen, drinking gin,

We can accept the damndest laws.

We must remain until the roof falls in.

And though there’s no one here at all,

One searches every room because

The crack is moving down the wall.

Repairs? But how can one begin?

The lease has warnings buried in each clause.

We must remain until the roof falls in.

These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,

The sort of thing that gives one pause.

The crack is moving down the wall.

We must remain until the roof falls in.

The second villanelle laments the bad behavior of men and how they go on to ruin women; the third villanelle looks at the “snug vantage point” of publishers who live to turn down works:  “I turned down Joyce myself.  It was the thing to do.”   In the fourth villanelle people are paralyzed and numbed because no messages will come.  They are entrapped in a soundless, speechless world.  The series of villanelles culminates in one that is about eternal war: “The truce was signed but the attack goes on.”

I plan to write more this week and hope that I will be accepted into the 1947 club.

Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry

7 thoughts on “The 1947 Club: The Fall of the Magicians by Weldon Kees”

  1. It sounds as if Kees was affected by some of the same post-WWII cynicism and despair that influenced noir writers and filmmakers. The poems you shared here are powerful.

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  2. In the UK Kees is probably best known for his four “Robinson” poems, about a ciphered alter-ego, a Crusoe cast away in society. There are writers – Ian Sinclair or Chris Petit, for example – who use “Robinson” as a character’s name as a sort of cross-reference to Kees. In the USA Kathleen Rooney wrote an interesting novel-in-verse Robinson Alone using extracts from Kees’s own letters and poems.

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